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Talking to Kids About Tragedies

June 13, 2016

It is not always easy to talk to young kids about subjects like where babies come from, drugs and alcohol, or sex. Much less to talk about terrifying things, like mass shootings or terrorist acts. Unfortunately, sometimes this conversation needs to happen. Children benefit when parents maintain an open line of communication with their kids about certain things. Children are going to have questions. These are some things I've learned while working with kids, and some recommendations about how to have this difficult conversation with them:

Be open to their questions, and encourage them. Ask where they heard about it. What do they know? Where did they see it? What did the source of communication (TV, radio, a kid at school, etc.) say? Encourage questions, and be nonjudgmental when you ask them how they heard about it. Keep your questions simple, and few. "Oh, where did you read about that?" "I see, what did they say?" Remember, if they cannot feel comfortable asking you, they will ask someone else, or they may look it up themselves. "You can ask me anything at all, always. I'll always try my best to answer."

Be honest about what happened, in a language they can understand. An act of terror leaves us wondering why. It leaves us baffled, and we might have many questions. And we're adults! Imagine being a small child and watching your mom or dad's reaction to something so scary. Imagine being a little kid and hearing it on the news, or from a friend at school. A lot of us of a certain generation may not have to imagine, because we've lived it. On September 11, 2001, I was part of an entire classroom of teenagers watching a terrifying incident unfold live on television. We watched thousands of people die. My brother was in 5th grade, and he remembers watching it on the news too. Nobody had any clue as to why this had happened.

When you're little, you might rely on a parent to provide an explanation. "That man hurt a lot of people." "He hurt a lot of people, and it's very sad." "It's not okay. Most people don't do that." "He made a very, very bad choice." "I don't know why he did it." It's okay to say if you don't know something. It's up to one's personal feelings about it, but I think there's an opportunity to instill empathy, while drawing the line between what's okay and what's not okay. "What he did is never okay. Hurting others is never okay. Maybe he had a lot of bad feelings and he needed help. When we need help, it's okay to ask for it. I'm always here if you need help." It's also important to help your kid feel safe when explaining. "It's very scary. Most people don't do things like that. I'm right here if you feel scared or sad."

"How does it make you feel?" Teaching kids to name their feelings, so they're easier to identify, and so they can better communicate to others about how they feel, is a very active task for a parent. There are feelings beyond sad, angry, and happy that you might have to help them label. With younger kids, I recommend materials like emotions charts or cards, and I've even seen emojis effectively used in this task.

"Use your words." Parents must often model this. Parents sometimes have to make the observation to their child, to be reflective. "I see you don't feel okay. We all have times when we don't feel okay. I'll be here when you're ready to talk." Validating the emotion is also important. "It's okay if you feel scared." "I feel scared sometimes too." Talk about how you cope with your feelings. "When I feel scared, I ______."

Draw how it makes you feel. This is one way to help kids express their feelings. When we employ our creativity it helps us express ourselves effectively, and perhaps even more effectively for kids who may not have the vocabulary.

This is never an easy conversation, but sometimes, it is necessary. Hope this has helped!



Center for Reflective Parenting
PBS: Talking and Listening to Kids
American Psychological Association: How to Talk to Children About Tragedies
Sesame Street: Children and Grief
SAMHSA: Helping Children Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event
Red Cross: Helping Children Cope with Disaster

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